Sunday, December 31, 2006

WHY SALT STILL SUCKS

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I have talked to a lot of people who are very knowledgeable about pools and pool water chemistry and salt systems in particular, and I have learned a lot. And I have come to a conclusion.

I was right. Salt sucks. It is an environmental hazard if used on a grand scale and it has no place in a swimming pool. To tinker with an old saying, “a man needs a salt pool like a fish needs a bicycle”.

I have had a tiny nagging worry, since I started this blog, that perhaps it was just me. Me and a handful of other pool guys I know who were just not doing something right with our pools. Maybe we were somehow not up to the task of this new salt technology. Even with all the evidence I was seeing on my pools, on other guys’s pools, on pools that I would go to that were being maintained by the owner, even with all that, maybe it was just us and something we were doing wrong.

And then I found that my worst fear was true. It was something we were doing wrong. We were putting salt into our pools.

We were pouring a known corrosive into our pools and then standing there, scratching our heads like a bunch of great, fat idiots, wondering why everything was corroding.

Duh.

Kudos this week to Pool & Spa News. There’s a great article in the latest issue titled “Questions Arise About Salt Chlorine Generators” by Rebecca Robledo. Turns out it’s not just Texas that’s having the problem. She quotes Buzz Ghiz, president of Paddock Pools in Scottsdale, Arizona. He says that over the last three to five years they’ve been having problems with damage to coping, decking, rock waterfalls and some of their equipment. After researching it, they found the common thread was salt chlorinators.

Gosh. I’m stunned. What a coincidence. That sounds exactly like what’s happening here, where the water is vastly different. Their water is hard. Ours is soft. Oh, and so much for all those guys out there who blame it on “that cheap sandstone you use in Texas”.

As much as I’m glad that Pool & Spa News is shining a light on this issue, there was one thing I didn’t like about Rebecca’s article. It was objective.

That’s the problem with journalism. You have to air both sides of the issue. And that’s what I love about blogging. I don’t have to accurately report both camp’s positions. I don’t have to be objective.

You see, it’s the built in blind spot of objectivity that helps these guys get away with this crap. Objectivity provides safe harbor to those who feign surprise or outrage when one of us points out that the Emperor Has No Clothes, and allows them to pretend to be unjustly accused and if we’ll just give them a little time, but don’t stop buying their products, they’ll “get to the bottom of things”.

The article points out that Paddock had to pay out of profit to repair the problems. Just like the Big Texas Builder I talked about a while ago. And the common thread in the path of this damage was always salt systems. And there’s a ton of references all over the place confirming the fact that when salt water seeps into stone, the water evaporates, the salt residue stays behind, begins to crystalize, exerts crystallization expansion pressure on the stone and explodes it from within. Period. That’s what the science guys say happens. They did it in labs. Over and over and over again. In studies going all the way back to the 1960's.

But when objectively reporting this phenomena, the article has to say, “Some builders theorize...”.

It’s not a theory. It’s a fact. But the idea that it’s a theory provides a gateway to the manufacturers side of the story, which I realize that Pool & Spa News has to present, no matter how thin the manufacturer’s charade is.

And, you see, that’s what journalists do. They present both sides. It’s their job, and they wouldn’t be doing a good job if they didn’t present both sides. Like I said, that’s why I love blogging.

The manufacturer’s side of all this is; Gosh, this “is just as new for us as it is for the [builders]”. That isn’t true. I’m sure Paddock Pools wasn’t holding back their findings over the last 3 to 5 years as some big trade secret. Wouldn’t you think that they might have brought it up to their salt Rep when they first began to make the connection? The simple truth is, most of the folks who have been seeing these problems have been hammering the Reps for years to explain why this stuff is happening. And they have been stonewalling.

They also say that “it’s a complex issue” with “geographical, environmental conditions, source water, certainly the salt from chlorine generators as well as other pool chemicals, then regional differences in the materials being used in coping...” Which is also a load of manure because you can’t get much different than the water in Scottsdale AZ and Dallas, TX. Not to mention that we didn’t have these issues until we added salt to our pools. It’s not at all complex. Don’t add salt to your pool and one hundred thousand year old limestone won’t dissolve in two years. They didn’t just make that limestone yesterday, you know. It isn’t some new substance we discovered about the same time we started pouring salt into pools.

They conclude by saying - and this is my personal favorite pass the buck, see no evil, hear no evil, the emperor really isn’t naked quote - “it’s way too early to start making determinations on what the issue is yet.”

Which is Sales & Marketing for “Oh, please don’t interrupt our gravy train. We’re not near done making money off this dog of a product yet, and God forbid we should say anything that might admit a shred of liability here, so let’s not all jump to the same wild-ass conclusion that all those scientists have been for the last fifty years”.

The issue is; salt damages stone and concrete and it’s been verified, common knowledge for half a century. But it’s way too early to make that determination? Well, I guess if the chance of being expected to pay for the damages was beginning to loom large, I could see where it would be way too early for them to determine much of anything.

The final piece of the smoke screen is that a group of seven salt system manufacturers are going to “spend the next few months compiling information from existing studies. They will also seek data from the pool industry in Australia”. Now this is where I really respect the objectivity of the folks at Pool & Spa News, for not being seized by uncontrollable fits of laughter and dropping the phone when the industry guy told them that. It is hilarious because one of the biggest salt system manufacturers in this country, and I’m sure must have been one of the seven, comes from Australia. They got their money to launch their system over here by selling a buttload of them over there first. So, what? Did they lose their notes?

Well, seeing as how they’re having so much trouble getting an open phone line Down Under, I decided to reach out and see what I could find.

http://www.urbanstone.com.au/technical/saltattack.cfm

That’s a link to a concrete paving company in Australia. As paving companies go, they’re no small change. They did $27.5 million (US) in 2004. So, they probably know a bit about paving. They have a whole page on their website devoted to the subject they refer to as salt attack, where they say; “When concrete is repeatedly wetted by a salt water solution, with alternate periods of drying during which pure water evaporates, some of the salts dissolved in the salt water solution are left behind in the form of crystals, (mainly sulfates) in the concrete pores and surface of the concrete unit. These crystals re-hydrate and grow upon subsequent wetting, and thereby exert an expansive force on the surrounding hardened cement paste within the concrete unit when this growth occurs. This expansive force is greatly amplified by the ability of the salt crystal to grow rapidly to many many times its original crystal dimension upon wetting. This rapid growth causes the concrete paste surrounding the crystal to "burst", exposing the aggregate in the concrete masonry unit. Such progressive surface weathering, commonly known as salt attack, occurs in particular when the ambient temperature is high and insolation is strong so that drying occurs rapidly in the pores of the concrete over some depth from the concrete paving surface. Thus, intermittently wetted surfaces are vulnerable, as are areas of paving around a salt water swimming pool particularly in the splash zone.” (Italics mine)

Sound familiar? Didn’t I just say something exactly like... ah, never mind.

The one thing that surprised me about what they have to say is that salt attack occurs in particular when the ambient temperature is high. So, we have the unique and destructive freeze/thaw characteristics of salt water in the winter, and the unique and destructive characteristics associated with rapid evaporation in the summer.

Can somebody please say something good about salt in a pool? I mean, it can’t be all bad, can it?

Oh, yeah. I forgot. You can open your eyes under water in a salt pool. Oh, well, that makes all the difference in the world. Forget everything I said. Never Mind!

I got that link to Urban Stone from David at the Pool Industry Secrets Forum. The link to his forum is in my Christmas post. We’ve been e-mailing a lot these last two weeks. He’s taught me a lot about the Australian market.

For example: He said you’d have to be daft to put a salt system on a copper plumbed pool. His exact words were, “...metallic pipe after the chlorinator is not suited. All [salt] chlorinators produce some stray currents and this stray current is most likely the issue. It can lase through the pipe in no time flat.” Lase through. Thats one of those cool Australian expressions, I bet. Like G’Day.

That Stray Currents thing, too. He calls it Stray Currents. I call it Galvanic Corrosion. I say toe-may-toe, he says toe-mah-toe.

In another conversation he said, “As for metallic pipe. Simple answer is I have never and would never ever consider fitting a salt chlorinator where any metal pipe is used. The reps are being very slack on this point and they should be canned for this.”

I explained to him that reps don’t get canned for that. They get promoted for not bringing up pesky details like this that might narrow the market. I explained to him that I work in the only industry I can think of where we don't expect any type of technical expertise from the salesmen who sell to the builders and service companies. If a high school kid at Best Buy showed half as much inability to help us with a problem with an inkjet printer as our sales reps have shown about the issues we’re having with salt systems, we'd walk out the door and over to Circuit City.

But let’s just go to the installation guidelines for EVERY SALT SYSTEM SOLD IN THE UNITED STATES and look for that warning about metal pipes. Hmmm... I don’t seem to be able to find that any where. Do you think that on that long plane ride from Australia, that sheet fell out of the salt system manufacturers installation instructions? That must be it. But I’m sure that when our very own G7 get that trunk call through to Australia, they’ll find it and put it back where it belongs. Better late than never, eh?

I found out, too that the majority of residential pools in Australia don’t have gas fired heaters. The majority use solar heat and a few use heat pumps with cupro nickel coils. Why cupro nickel? Because it’s more corrosion resistant than copper. Which kind of means that all those pools out there with copper heat exchangers are at risk. No? Don’t believe me? Would you believe it if you heard it from a major salt system manufacturer?

I have a Hayward H-Series Pool & Spa Heaters brochure that I picked up at the supplier just two weeks ago. And I quote; “Cupro nickel is a supremely resilient material that provides product durability and longevity. Cupro nickel aligns well with today’s popular salt -based systems and offers outstanding corrosion resistance.”

Oops. Did they just infer that copper wasn’t up to the job of handling the corrosion dished out by salt? Doesn’t Hayward own Goldline? Hmm... Think there’s a connection in why they used to use copper and now use cupro nickel?

Could that be why salt’s been such a smashing success in Australia? Because they don’t have too much copper to worry about?

Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention. Salt’s not allowed on commercial pools in Australia. Period.

So, the next time your salt system Rep says “It can’t be salt that’s doing the damage. If it was salt, then why is 90% of the market in Australia salt?” I swear I’ve been handed that horse... I mean baloney, when I’ve posed questions about salt’s down sides. Now, when they say that, you can point out that:

1. They use as little metal as possible on salt pools in Australia. The few metal things remaining, like the ladder, are made of Marine Grade stainless steel. That’s SS 316L, and it costs more.

2. According to Urban Stone, all coping and hardscape requires thorough and frequent sealing, and according to the article in Pool & Spa News, that’s as frequently as every three months.

3. Whatever the percentage of salt pools in Australia is, it’s only residential pools. It is not allowed in commercial applications. So, it’s just a lie to say that 90% of the market is salt pools.

4. If Australian pools aren’t heated with gas fired heaters, and all the stone and concrete are sealed, and they use marine grade metals when they have to use metals at all, then it’s not the same market. It’s not a fair comparison. Unless, of course, we as an industry want to go back to the days of kidney shaped pools with no heaters and concrete bullnose coping and concrete decks.

Number four there really is the driver. Don’t you think? Think about all the beautiful, award winning pools you’ve seen these last five years. Think of all the tropical garden oasis pools with all that rock and all those water features and waterfalls. Imagine sealing them every three months. Or worse yet, imagine them with 60's era bullnose coping and Kool Deck.

You want to speed up the research into the problems we’re having with salt pools? Stop selling salt systems until the issues are resolved. As long as these guys are making money and salt system sales are still growing exponentially, they’re only going to pay lip service to your problems. They’re going to say, “we’re looking into it, and we promise, as soon as we know something, we’ll call.”

Like Al Pacino said in Dog Day Afternoon, “Kiss, kiss. I like to get kissed when I’m getting...”, well, you know...

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Comments:
Not every problem with limestone comes from salt. The following post
http://www.poolforum.com/pf2/showpost.php?p=41467&postcount=8
is from a pool owner without an SWG (i.e. not a salt pool) who had problems with his limestone. So to say that 100,000 year limestone now degrades in 2 years solely because of SWG pools is clearly inaccurate. If this user is correct, then there are different grades of limestone and poor grades will degrade even when not exposed to high salinity.

I'm not disputing your points about higher salinity causing more problems or increasing such risks. I'm just saying it's not the only cause and that some pool builders may be blaming SWG pools when at least in some cases it is inferior building materials which would degrade even in a non-SWG pool.
 
I went and read the comment by the non-swg pool with problems with their limestone. First, they say they used it as tile and coping. I've never heard of using limestone in place of tile before in my life. But then, I've only been working daily with pools for twenty-five years. I'm not doubting that they did. I'm just wondering what low-ball, fly-by-night tail light warranty stone guy talked them into letting him do their tile line in limestone. Next, they say they have been having ongoing problems with flaking and cracking. Ask them if it's the coping that's flaking and cracking or the places where it's been used as tile. Besides, flaking and cracking isn't typical of the type of damage we see with salt damage to limestone, as the pictures in this blog illustrate. But you're right about my statement that 100,000 year old limestone degrading in two years is inaccurate. I'm sure the limestone is much older than that, and I've seen degradation begin to occur in as little as three weeks to a month. But only on salt pools. I've never seen that kind of degradation occur like that on pools sanitized in any other way.

Chem Geek, you're looking at one pool - yours - and listening to a few people here and there and you're coming to the conclusion that it just can't be as bad as I say it is. Brother, I've been in this business for 25 years and I've seen a lot of cheesy tricks perpetrated on pool owners. But I've never seen anything like this. And the only way you'll ever get the same sense of it is if you go look at pools with the materials I'm talking about and then, maybe then, you'll admit that it has so little to do with shoddy builders using inferior material and so much to do with shoddy multi-national corporations screwing pool owners just like you out of the money it's going to take to fix all this collateral damage. To even bring up this one, lone incident of a person putting limestone where their tile was and pointing to it as proof that it's not all salt's fault is just proving that you're more stubborn than even I am.
 
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